The perspectives of Snowdon

Part one – the evolving

Snowdon appears in many guises depending on where the observer stands. At times it is a hill, others it is a peak, whilst yet it may be found to be a prominence with a plateau between two very small summits, and again there is the grandeur afforded by those who arrive from the Capel Curig direction – if heavy cloud cover isn’t present.

The Snowdon range from the A5 alongside Llynnau Mywmbr

This view (without the clouds of course!) is the classic – sometimes the clouds add extra drama to the scene as seen here. Y Lliwedd and Crib Goch can be clearly seen whilst Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa) and Crib y Ddysgl are shrouded by clouds.

To some Yr Wyddfa, the true peak of Snowdon, may often appear not to be the tallest but instead its neighbour Crib y Ddysgl. Often this seems to be the more important of the two peaks because of its much larger size and prominence. From the south the same effect can be discerned where Yr Wydffa, although now a prominent peak, still at times appears slightly lower than Crib y Ddysgl. This may somehow be compounded by the fact that both Y Lliwedd and Crib Goch, along with Crib y Ddysgl, are more substantial than the peak of Yr Wyddfa.

Llynnau Mymbyr and the Snowdon group
© Jim Barton (see Creative Commons Licence.)

Jim Barton’s photograph shows the classical, traditional view of the Snowdon Range. Its a quite dreamy and romantic prospect – especially in the winter when snow is capped on the mountain tops. From many perspectives including this one, Crib y Ddysgl appears to be the highest of the Snowdon range rather than the true summit of Yr Wyddfa.

Certainly just before the first regular travellers began to ascend Snowdon in 1639, the mountain had remained obscured from view as the great Royal Forest of Snowdonia still stood, and perhaps only those armed with substantial local knowledge knew of the mountain’s true secrets. Even back then, people were in awe of the mountain and most stayed away from it, whilst the hardy Welsh princes and their armies had a great and exclusive use of the prominences.

Snowdon from Cwm y Glo as illustrated in Thomas Pennant’s Tour of Wales. Artist unknown. This very early view of Snowdon dates probably from 1780. It shows us the almost virgin land that existed in the days before the mass manipulation of nature began.

Snowdon from Penisa’r Waun, near Cwm Y Glo

The difference in shape and prominence is obvious between this 2010 shot from Penisa’r Waun and the 1780’s picture.

The demise of the forest must have made Snowdon a greater object of curiosity, for not long after the first recorded climbers made their ascent, and the great and learned were arguing about how high Snowdon was and whether it was a hill or a mountain. Given that this was now the seventeenth century, it was a time of great progress and scientific development and of great upheaval as people sought to gain greater control of not only politics, but also of nature and all that stood for it.

As part of that quest to control nature, more needed to be learnt about its sentinent value and its living beings. The botanist made many regular visits to Snowdonia, recording its many varieties of unique species of flower and fauna. One of these, Thomas Pennant, a noted Welshman, had botany and zoology as his main interests but quickly enough his travel exploits were put to paper and others were able to read of the great treasures and beauty to be found in this corner of North West Wales. Pennant’s A Tour in Wales (1778-1783) stirred great interest in the Welsh Mountains.

Those following in Pennant’s footsteps included the great Charles Darwin, who identified the glacial valleys in Snowdonia and then went on to sail around the world in HMV Beagle. The theory of evolution soon became a major milestone in human thought and philosophy, and the world changed forever. But unbeknown to many Snowdon and Snowdonia were also clear indicators of evolution, that is of the human kind, where man’s hand reshaped the mountains and gouged out great sections as humans sought to master further the world they lived in.

Portrait of Thomas Pennant (1776) by Thomas Gainsborough, from the National Museum Wales. Pennant’s Tour of North Wales prompted interest in the principality, however it was his Journey to Snowdon (1781) that generated futher interest.

At the same time that the Snowdon mountains were being shaped to suit the desires of man, their lofty cliffs and foreboding peaks invited the adventurous in droves. Those who came with paints and easels sought to capture the grandeur of the Snowdon mountains, others whose intent was on writing guides, such as Black Adams, whilst those equipped with ropes and pick axes sought to conquer the steep mountain slopes. It is said that mountain climbing was invented by the British, strange so be it because this country has little in the way of mountains. However it showed the determination by humans to effect a conquest of all things natural.

Snowdon from the east in the 1800’s before the roads arrived. Moel Siabod is on the left – this is a scene from Black Adam’s Guide to North Wales. Notice how much height has been added to the summit of Snowdon. This was often done in old pictures and paintings in order to enchance the splendour of the Snowdon massif.

The proliferation of many learned guides developed the new craze of tourism and people came in droves to admire and even climb to the summit of Yr Wyddfa. Soon enough huts offering overnight accommodation and tea, bacon and eggs were established at the summit followed by a hotel. Regular guides made their living escorting dozens of people a time up the mountains, some on foot and some by donkey. Roads were opened up and the great A5 passing nearby on its way from the capital to Holyhead made day tripping more popular. Of course the iron road soon arrived and as history has shown us, they built one of these right up to the summit of Snowdon itself.

The greatly evolving face of Snowdon has without a doubt always been largely one that was made by humankind. But there is one thing that the hand of man has been unable to alter, and that is the splendour of the Snowdon mountains and their greatly varied, changeable character. If there were no public footpaths and no railway, there would still be a great variety to be seen. Despite the modern additions, the Snowdon massif still manages to present an air of mystery and intrigue.

The prominences

Different perspective on the classic view from near Capel Curig. © Copyright Gwychder y Wyddfa
Even at this location from near the upper end of Llynau Mymbyr, the summit of Snowdon still appears to be the second lowest of the three.

The best of the Snowdon characteristics has to be without a doubt the view as one travels westwards from Capel Curig. The placing of Llynau Mymbyr as a reflective mirror at the foot of Moel Siabod, with the Snowdon range to the west mirrored in the lake’s waters, is perhaps the piece de resistance. The ascent of Moel Siabod itself reveals a spectacular prospect upon the Snowdon range.

The Snowdon Horseshoe from Moel Siabod
© David Crocker (see Creative Commons Licence.)
David Crocker’s view from Moel Siabod shows the Snowdon range to great effect. However at this height still (2861ft) Crib y Ddysgl (sometimes erroneously referred to as Garnedd Ugain, a name without historic substantiation) looks almost higher than Yr Wyddfa.

Crib Goch, looking towards Snowdon (1085m) and Crib-y-Ddysgl (1065m)
©Adele (see Creative Commons Licence.)Adele’s photograph from Crib Goch shows that Snowdon has quite a considerable height over Crib y Ddysgl. Because of the way the mountains are collected togther, its often not obvious that Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa) is the highest of the group and often the dramatic pyramid shape of Snowdon can only be seen from these higher elevations.

Note: Many publications and websites refer to Crib y Ddysgl as being another name for Garnedd Ugain. Research has shown the dubious nature of the name ascribed to the peak of “Garnedd Ugain” – in fact it doesnt exist – except as a 20th century creation (see this feature on Crib-y-Ddysgl.) There is also a debate over whether Snowdon should be described by Yr Wyddfa or Y Wyddfa. It appears the O.S. added the ‘r’ and several noted Welsh historians say technically it should just be Y Wyddfa. However Yr Wyddfa now seems to be the accepted norm. As a matter of interest, nearby Lliwedd is correctly described as Y Lliwedd, rather than just plain Lliwedd.

As one travels further westwards along the A4086 road, it gains height and the perspective changes considerably. The mountains now loom quite large, and because of the height gain, the peak of Yr Wyddfa gains a considerable prominence over its neighbourly peaks of Y Lliwedd, Crib y Ddysgl and Crib Goch. This same exciting prospect maintains itself as one leaves their bus (or car) at Pen-y-Pass and sets off along the Miners or Pyg tracks. Indeed the nearer one progresses towards Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa,) its imposing cliff face begins to look like a miniature version of the Eiger.

A view of the pyramid of WalesGwychder y Wyddfa’s view looking across the valley of Llyn Llydaw to Snowdon impacts upon the viewer the sharply defined pyramid, which is said by some to make Snowdon the handsomest mountain in the British Isles.

Many people ascend Snowdon via the Miner’s or Pyg tracks. The great magnet generating these moving droves of peoples happens to be the fantastic setting at the top of the two mountain lakes, Llydaw and Glaslyn. Snowdon changes its guise quite a few times, from further away it is like a sharply pointed peak (or pyramid,) whilst up much closer it looks almost like a minature version of the Eiger – indeed the steep treacherous cliffs that rise up to the summit of Snowdon tell us this mountain is special and should be given respect.

A walk up the Pyg track – looking ahead
  © John S Turner (see Creative Commons Licence.)
John Turner’s prospect shows the dramatic rise of Snowdon’s cliffs. It has strong elements of the views afforded from Eigergletscher up to the Nordwand (the north face) of the Eiger, one of Europe’s most treacherous mountain cliffs. The dramatic south eastern face is Clogwyn y Garnedd y Wyddfa, but more usually known as Clogwyn y Garnedd.

Bwlch y Saethau
© Nigel Brown (see Creative Commons Licence.)
Nigel Brown’s picture shows the final section of the Watkin Path across the north end of Y Lliwedd and Bwlch y Saethau, which forms the ridge between Y LLiwedd and Yr Wyddfa’s natural pyramidal shape.

From the valley of Nant Gwynant, the Watkin path starts at Bethania where dramatic waterfalls and the impressive remains of mines can be seen. Yr Arran, a satellite peak of Snowdon, makes itself prominent as one ascends up the path. All too soon, Yr Wyddfa appears as a massive cliff known as Bwlch y Saethau. Unlike the other tourist paths that ascend Snowdon, the Watkin path is one that sets out to conquer. It crosses to the lower slopes of Y Lliwedd and part of the Snowdon Horseshoe, and then tackles the mighty scree across the cliff face of Bwlch y Saethau up to the summit.

Snowdon, a hill or a mountain?

Douglas Hoare’s book (1987) entitled ‘Snowdon, that most celebrated hill,’ reminds us that Snowdon was once described as a hill, even in the time of Henry the eighth, Snowdon was described as a hill. It is only perhaps since the 18th Century that Snowdon has become a mountain – chiefly because of the allusions with the Swiss Alps. Snowdonia was often said to be the British version of the Alps, hence people began to see Snowdon as a mountain. Nevertheless despite it being a mountain, sometimes it still appears to be a hill, as will be described below.

Further west, as one passes north through the Beddgelert valley, Snowdon takes on the appearance of a rather puzzling sort of hill with a quite flat plateau. Indeed many times in the distant past it was known as Snowdon Hill. It is only in Victorian times when the conquest of the higher lands of our country caused people to name these prominences mountains rather than hills. Yet on the west side that perspective is one of great illusion compounded by the fact that there are no other prominences to give perspective to the great peak of Yr Wyddfa. If one were to climb Moel Hebog, Myndd Mawr, Moel Cynghorion or any one of the other summits to the north or west,  the hill of Snowdon soon makes itself clearly a mountain and the quite flat plateau becomes a ridge that steepens from the lower slopes of the prominence whose summit forms Crib y Ddysgl, and rises up to the spectacular peak of Yr Wyddfa.

This view of Snowdon from the crossroads at Rhyd Ddu is a good example of the puzzling nature of the mountain on its west side. Despite being a great mountain, it seems to have shrunk and looks not much more than a hill.

Bwlch y Ddwy-Elor
  © Eric Jones (see Creative Commons Licence.)Eric Jones’ picture shows a view of the Snowdon massif from Bwlch y Ddwy Elor, which is a ancient pass (the pass of the two biers) between Cwm Pennant and Rhyd Ddu and traversed by people doing the Nantlle ridge circular. The mountain’s hill like appearance seen at Rhyd Ddu is no longer there as the summit of Snowdon really soars above everything else, even Crib y Ddysgl.

From the summit of Snowdon itself, the panorama to the west is also something of a puzzle. The great depths and precipices of the south and east sides are missing on the west and north west side, and the view from the summit looks rather more like those that would be seen from a hill-top. Again this is an illusion of some sort propounded by the somewhat strange perspectives in this part of the world. There are few markers in the direction of Llyn Cwellyn and the Nantlle valley that give a sense of just how high one is. Llyn Cwellyn’s width and the broad valley shoulders along its south east east and south west side make the height difference between the lake and the summit of Snowdon seem far less than they actually are.

Despite the illusion, its actually quite a great height from Snowdon to the bottom of the valley. London’s Telecom Tower would certainly look very small if placed on the valley floor. Lets place the 620ft British Telecom tower in Rhyd Ddu, as I have done in the image below. It does place a sense of perspective on the otherwise rather difficult to scale prominence from the summit of Snowdon. As the image shows, the BT Tower would look quite dimunitive and it tells us that the prospect to the north and west from Snowdon is indeed at a far taller height than the view itself actually conveys. Llyn Cwellyn is about 2000ft at its widest. The BT tower would fit into the narrow bit at the north end of the lake.

The BT Tower in Rhyd Ddu. Well over five of these would be needed to reach a level comparable to Snowdon’s Summit.
(© Denis Eagan – used from Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Licence)

Note: The Nebo Mast (Arfon Transmitter) at 1,041 ft to the south of the Nantlle valley is the highest structure in Wales. Sited 971 feet above sea level, the top of the mast reaches a height of 1983ft above sea level, which is pretty dramatic for a TV mast in the UK. However its difficult to see on photographs unless taken at dusk or night when its six bright red marker beacons clearly indicate its position amongst the mountains. Its approximate position in the above picture is indicated by the red circle. For the panorama from the top of the Nebo mast including a view towards Snowdon see here

So far we have seen how Snowdon’s appearance has changed through many its guises. Were one to either drive round to the Llanberis valley or walk up to the cleft between Moel Cynghorion and Foel Goch, and down towards Llanberis, the perspective changes again. Its a mixed bag here, as the most imposing mass becomes once again Crib y Ddysgl, whilst Yr Wyddfa becomes a sort of relegation. When clouds do not occlude the summit, the ability to see Hafod Eryri or a train chugging up this relegated peak always reminds an observer that this is the tallest peak, and not Crib y Ddysgl.

Snowdon overlooking the shoulder of Moel Cynghorion. crib-y-Ddysgl is on the left & certainly looks the higher and more important of the two prominences in this scene viewed from the Llanberis to the Snowdon Ranger path via Bwlch Maesgwm.

The mountain train route and the block that is Hafod Eryri tell us that the pyramidal peak is the highest. Note the old sheep dip building near Bwlch Glas (center of picture.) This must be one of the highest farm buildings in the country. Adjacent to the mass that is Crib y Ddysgl, the finger post at Bwlch Glas can just be discerned in this view achieved using a powerful zoom from Capel Goch, Llanberis. © Copyright Gwychder y Wyddfa.Llyn Cwellyn (139m) and Llyn Padarn (105m) are not too disimilar in terms of height above sea level. However the perspective from Llyn Padarn affords a more dramatic panorama than that from the Beddgelert valley. It seems quite likely the cliffs of Clogwyn are what gives the view the much needed uplift that makes Snowdon more of a mountain. But there is also the fact that the sides of Llyn Padarn have dramatic ascents that give ‘comparators’ from which to translate better the height of Snowdon compared to those from either Llyn Cwellyn or Rhyd Ddu.

Llyn Padarn from Penllyn on a March day
  © Eric Jones (see Creative Commons Licence.)Eric Jones’ picture captures the mood of Snowdon splendidly in this classic view from the far side of Llyn Padarn. The summit once again however looks relegated compared to Crib-y-Ddysgl. This classic view is perhaps one of the reasons why so much confusion exists as to the classification and etymology surrounding the peak’s alleged other name – e.g. Garnedd Ugain.

View from Pen y Bwlch
  © David Stowell (see Creative Commons Licence.)David Stowell’s view of Snowdon from Pen y Bwlch captures that important essence that shows Yr Wyddfa is the higher summit. The pyramidal shape that is Snowdon/Yr Wyddfa becomes strongly defined in this view and without a doubt it is the king of the Welsh mountains.

Copyright © 2010 Gwychder y Wyddfa

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